The blueprint for successful failure has no straight lines. Nor is it guaranteed.
At 77, I’ve long since quit stewing and being embarrassed over the fact that I was expelled from college for both social and academic reasons when I was a freshman. Unlike Bob Sternberg, who blew it in the fourth grade, I blew it my first year of college. Fact of the matter, aside from the woman I married and our three daughters, is that freshman failure was one of the best things that ever happened to me.
That failure made “I’ll show ‘em” one of the central motivations of my life. I took a mandatory year off, worked in a Detroit factory, and resolved never to find myself in that situation again. So in due time, I knocked off a baccalaureate degree, a masters of divinity from a theological seminary, most of a master’s in theology, an M.A. from the University of Colorado, and a PhD from the University of Minnesota. And my careers, most anyone would say, have been marked by success — and great fun. Freud wrote that the “normal healthy life” includes work, love, and play. That was a swell blueprint for me.
I tell this story with obvious relish, recognizing that I’m not the only one who wrested success out of profound failure. But I’m also aware that research has shown that failure can have devastating consequences for psychological well-being. There’s a lot of evidence suggesting that rejection can precipitate a psychological state resembling physical pain, often followed by long-term isolation. You expect psychologists to look for the grim human experience and the abnormal, and that’s what the early research revealed.
However, a fascinating series of studies from 2007 issued a strong caveat to that early research, and also explained my motivation in spades. Jon Maner of Florida State and a number of his colleagues asked whether social exclusion motivates interpersonal reconnection. Six different experiences found that the experience of social exclusion increases the motivation to forge social bonds, but . . . with new sources of affiliation. Although it was possible for me to return to the college that expelled me, I chose to go elsewhere.
In retrospect, much of my life has been pure luck. Most probably don’t have the opportunities I was given, much less the mentors who walked into my life, gave me clear direction and were not at all shy about delivering “shape up” lessons.
Merely changing schools, however, did not necessarily imply a “successful failure.” Conventional wisdom says that we learn from failure. That’s far from the truth. Most of the time, we don’t. Failure anxiety rules us. We jump to conclusions, rationalize the hell out of failure to make it look good, ignore or distort feedback and, significantly, fail to separate skill from pure luck.
John F. Kennedy once said that “Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.” We are quick to take credit for success and deny responsibility for failure. Don’t think that the failure was anyone’s but mine or that the success was solely about my own ability. Again, much of it was luck. Being born a White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant male in the 1930’s to a family that became moderately well off, a family willing to fund experiences in one of the culturally richest cities of the world (Detroit in the thirties, forties, and fifties), educated in a school system that provided experiences students would drool over today, attending a prominent church that pointed its kids to rich and fulfilling experiences and meeting people who took an interest in me, often for no discernible reason, played a large part in my successes. Furthermore, my success over that freshman failure certainly failed to inoculate me against more failure. That’s reality.
Still, motivation, ability, and just gutting it out play a huge role in anyone’s life of successful failure. So along the way, I developed the learning competencies that support future success. Though invariably curious, I had to build those performance virtues of persistence, self-regulation, responsibility and what Duckworth calls grit. My small wins responded to the multiplier effect and my successes become more obvious. I found, as Paul Tough has put it so eloquently, that cultivating those strengths is a reliable path to “the good life,” a life not just happy, but meaningful and fulfilling.
Successful failure is not easily won. It’s hard work. But lest you be put off by the seeming demands of success, it’s important to say that I count many friends among my list of successful failures. People who rose to take advantage of their failures. I’ve gotten a lot out of my freshman failure. So maybe the failure never will be finally forgotten, and that’s not such a bad thing. Yeah, I seriously doubt that it’s possible to be successful without real failure. And Steve Jobs is the classic example of that truth.
Dan Erwin, PhD, is a specialist in performance improvement. Over more than 25 years he has coached nearly 500 officers, executives, and managers from top American corporations by means of his very original, cutting-edge development program. Shockingly, you can't Google his name prior to 2008 — due to the demands of his clients. He blogs at danerwin.typepad.com, and tweets at twitter.com/danerwin.
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